The parable of the hiker

This is a story I used with my senior economics students who were just about to go out into the wider world.

Once there were two tribes divided by a mountain ridge. They knew little of each other until, one day, a hiker began traveling between the two tribes. He got to know each tribe well and promoted friendly relationships between the two. As time went by, the tribes began to visit, interact, and trade — but always with the possibility of misunderstanding their different cultures. Still, they were far richer in culture and material wealth than when they had been isolated from each other.

My lesson to the students: Listen to the hiker. (I am the hiker). I spent major amounts of time in the student culture and also with the businesses that employed them. Each culture has some things you will find unusual, but respect the native culture.

And out in the wider world, after listening to the hiker, work to be the hiker — the one who can span cultures, with full respect for both.

Here are some practical applications in the fields my students entered in large numbers (banking, finance, real estate):

  • Don’t make your appearance scary. The interview coaches who suggest conservative business attire know what they’re talking about. By dressing professionally, you’re signaling that you will be a productive team member.
  • Clean up your social media. Even if you end up at a firm that likes its alcohol, that firm doesn’t want to hire people who post pictures of their extreme drinking.
  • Clean up your language. Even in firms where day-to-day operations involve salty language, recruiters don’t want to hear f-bombs in initial interviews.

And finally, about the counter-argument that says: “Ignore the hiker and show your own individuality through dress, social media, and language.” Or: “People should not judge you by appearance.” Fine, go ahead. But understand that the system is corrupt and if you’re coming from a regional university or small liberal arts college, the system is looking for a reason to exclude you. You are almost certain to have no effect on that system. Better to get your foot in the door, game the system — and then use the money and influence you acquire to make the system better.

Listen to the hiker.